I haven't posted much lately because I'm in the field right now, but also because I am working on Rag & Muffin, my magical girl novel, and am not good for much else at the moment. I expect to have the book in final draft form by end of the summer, at which point I'll start my rejection slip collection while I work on the second volume, which is currently under the working title of Rag Dolls, and will feature Miss Rags teaming up with her evil but gentlemanly yet decidedly foppish mad scientist pediatrician.
Rag & Muffin has taken me a long time to produce, largely because my vision of it has changed drastically since I started (it was originally so lurid and gruesome that I can hardly stand to look at the earliest drafts), and also because the amount of research necessary has intensified since I decided firmly on a more "real-world" setting (it takes place in a heavily fictionalized version of the British Raj). Also, as a new writer, I had to, as they say, "get the suck out" and write loads and loads of amateurish junk before I could produce something of professional grade. But in spite of the struggle, I have stuck with this particular story for years, because more than anything else I've written or tried to write, I believe in Rag & Muffin.
The following is an excerpt from the first chapter, showing the condition the story is in now. This guy Heatfreak is one of three characters in the story who exist mostly for the purpose of getting their clocks cleaned, and as with most of the characters in this book, I knew Heatfreak's name before I knew why he had that name. Only as I was rewriting this sequence did I realize it was a nickname he received on account of the tapas generated by his Yogic exercises.
Anyway, in addition to being a fight scene, this introduces two of the R&M universe's three forms of magic.
The young soldier in the runeship was Simon Achilles Palmeiro, and he was a zealot. An idealist in love with the romantic vision of a world stripped of barbarism and united in a single civilization, he had eagerly enlisted in the Elysian army at the age of sixteen. Not long after, he had embarked on his first tour of duty in Godtown. Once he arrived in the holy city, he quickly became intrigued by the mendicants he saw seated blissfully on their mats in the dark corners of parks and courtyards: their peacefulness and self-mastery stirred something in him—yet, at the same time, their apparent passivity repulsed him.
For a long while, he could not sort out these feelings, but everything became clear when for the first time he saw a demonstration of Sastravidya. On a broad ghat beside the Ganga, under the noonday sun, he had gaped as two thickly muscled marjaras, stripped to the waist, drove at each other and fought with a combination of open-handed strikes and acrobatic grappling. They swung their arms in wide, showy arcs and flipped their bodies through the air, yet they never lost control or let down their guard.
Simon decided then and there that he wanted to learn their techniques. He found a guru, and soon he was spending every spare minute in meditation and breathing exercises, focusing his mind and learning to control the prana flowing through his body. He went through rigorous and painful exercises, balancing for hours on one foot or on one hand. He gave up meat, and he gave up booze. He even gave up women. In time, his ascetic disciplines generated so much tapas that he often returned to the barracks at night with a searing heat radiating from his body, and thus he earned his nickname—Heatfreak.
As he gained steadily in power, he found yet another master who could teach him to focus his prana and turn it into a weapon, for Heatfreak in his yogic meditations sought neither to cleanse his karma nor to realize Brahman. Heatfreak wanted to fight.
And now, as the runeship lifted, he saw on the roof below him a worthy enemy on whom he could demonstrate his skills. It was against orders. He was risking a court martial.
But he didn’t care.
He glanced over his shoulder at Darcangelo, who leaned over the sickly little girl to check the IV attached to her arm. “You’ll make it to the hospital okay, Doc,” Heatfreak said. “I’m gonna take care of the witch.”
Darcangelo snapped his head up and reached out to grab him, but Heatfreak slipped from his grasp and, with a laugh, leapt from the runeship’s door. After landing lithely, he doffed his helmet, ripped open his flak jacket, and tossed both to the ground. Raising his fists, he called a challenge across the rooftop: “Hey, little girl, you wanna play with me?”
With rapid chain punches, Rags was pummeling one of Heatfreak’s squad mates. She paused, looked up, and tossed her victim aside like a rag doll.
“Okay,” she said, “but I play rough!”
Her pink dress flared as she ran at him.
Heatfreak launched himself forward, slid across the roof, moved into a crouch, and aimed a sweep for Rags’s legs. She leapt and kicked for his head, but he blocked with a raised forearm. She twisted in the air, landed on her hands, flipped to her feet, and went into a hook kick. He blocked with a cross-kick and then spun around into a hook kick of his own. Rags ducked it, jumped onto her hands again, and shot her feet back and over her head toward Heatfreak’s torso, catching him in the side. He slid backwards and grabbed his ribs where she’d struck him.
It stung. He winced.
“How does a girl your size get that strong?”
Rags pushed a loose strand of auburn hair behind one ear. “I work out.”
Crossing his legs, he dropped into a basic resting stance. “You’re a cheeky little thing. Didn’t your mum ever teach you any manners?”
“Didn’t your mum ever teach you not to hit girls?”
“She said I could hit naughty girls who are out past their bedtime.”
A grin spread Rags’s lips, exposing canine teeth just a little too pointy to be human. “Funny. I do the same thing to naughty boys.”
He made hooks with his hands and closed again, hoping that with the Eagle Claw technique, he could incapacitate her with a few dislocations or pressure point strikes. His limbs were longer than hers, but after she landed the first blow, he realized how seriously she had him at a disadvantage: a Sastravidya practitioner learned always to watch his opponent’s eyes, but Rags was a hybrid, so Heatfreak didn’t dare. Hybrids could do strange things with their eyes—more than once in their first engagement, her bright green eyes had begun to draw him in, and he had to check himself. That slowed him down.
Besides, in spite of his love of fighting, he found he couldn’t bring himself to go all out. She was an infamous criminal, tough as a tank and with a punch like a sledgehammer, but she was still a little girl. Maybe if it weren’t for her curly hair, her bright voice, and her nancy outfit, he could have made himself hit her as hard as he wanted.
Now he wished he’d stayed in the runeship. He wanted this fight over with quickly, and he figured the best way was to move in close, avoid her eyes, and break a couple of her limbs.
But she clearly knew what he was doing. Keeping her body loose and fluid, she slid out of his grasp and slapped aside his every attempted strike, giggling like a child petting a dog. She was toying with him.
He felt a faint twinge of panic, so he changed his technique again and moved into a rapid series of punches and chops. Once he had her fighting more vigorously, he took the chance to draw in close. Twice she tried to kick, but he counter-kicked to keep her feet on the ground.
It didn’t work. She slipped through his defenses, smashed her right fist into his gut, and doubled him over. She tried to plant an uppercut on his chin as well, but he blocked that and recovered.
He now had an idea of her preferred methods. In particular, the move she had used early in the fight to land her first blow had been an extravagant one. Such a move she had no doubt practiced until it was almost automatic.
He feinted with a roundhouse kick, and, as he expected, Rags dove onto her hands again to duck his foot. Arresting his kick midway, he twisted his hips and drove his heel hard into her back, sending her sprawling face-first into the roof. Her little top hat came unpinned from her bangs and rolled away.
The fight had lasted less than a minute, and the runeship was still making its silent lift-off, though it now hovered a hundred feet in the air. While Juliet saw to the patient, Darcangelo, with his thin lips womanishly pursed, stared out the open door. At last, he sucked in his breath and slapped a hand against his knee.
“Nurse,” he said, “take over. I’ll join you later.”
“Doctor,” Juliet cried, “what about the serum?”
Darcangelo gave her a weary shrug. “I’m sorry, but there are some things a gentleman cannot witness without making reply, and one them is the sight of a lady being struck.”
He tipped his hat before pulling it down firmly over his ears, snatched up his medical bag and umbrella cane, and dove out the door.
“Doctor!” Juliet shrieked.
Being in a hurry, Darcangelo didn’t bother to make use of the flying technique, which could have slowed his descent and allowed for a graceful landing. Instead, he merely raised his prana and counted on his hardened body to absorb the impact. He fell swiftly, trench coat fluttering, and cracked the rooftop when he struck.
But he had miscalculated: the blow drove the wind from his lungs, and, with a faint groan, he slumped.
Rags raised her head. She wiped a hand across her nose as tears gathered in her eyes. Her lip protruded in a pout.
Heatfreak stood over her. “You lose, Ragamuffin. Now come quietly or a bad little girl’s going to get punished.”
Her tears glistened in the reddish light, the light caught his attention, and then his eyes met hers.
He had only the briefest moment to realize his mistake. He tried to twist his head and look away, but her green eyes flashed and arrested his gaze as if his neck were locked in a vice.
Then her Sammohana overwhelmed him.
His thoughts ceased. The little girl lying on the rooftop evaporated into the air. In her place arose a goddess, tall and stately and clothed in flaming red, terrible and beautiful beyond any concept he had previously had of terror or beauty. Her shapely lips were pressed together in a stern but silent rebuke, and her eyes pierced through to his heart. Seven of her eight hands held the symbols of her office as well as her weapons—the conch, lotus, bow, chakran, sword, trident, and thunderbolt—but the eighth hand pointed an accusing finger.
He sank to his knees. Like a hammer blow, the realization struck him that all his ablutions and rigors had been mere child’s play, mere dabbling. He had struggled, he had denied himself so that he might have power, but now he knew his ascesis was empty. It was not enough for the goddess. Nothing he could do was enough.
Towering above him, her incomparable face impassive and severe, she spoke to him a single word of command, and he had no choice but to obey.
Rags could sense the gland in the base of her skull squeezing tight as it pumped Heaven Seed up into her brain. She could feel power and heat radiating from her eyes, flowing out from her and into Heatfreak. His own eyes wide and flowing with tears, his body shaking, he dropped to the roof and mumbled to himself like a halfwit.
She had him now. She could make him do whatever she wanted.
She climbed to her feet, brushed her hands down the front of her dress, and told him to beat his head on the rooftop until he passed out. Then she crossed her arms and watched, bored, while he completed the task.